Inequality: Trickle Down Economics and Classroom 6-2

A few months ago, I began implementing a money system in my sixth grade class. I did this principally because I was a fledgling (read: awful) teacher and my students went absolutely bonkers each time I set foot in the classroom. It was as if the very sight of me awakened their collective deepest, darkest fantasies of how to break someone. So, I elected to unleash on them a system where they were tangibly rewarded for doing good things and tangibly rewarded less for doing bad things. In short, I figured I’d buy them off. Underlying my desperate measure, though, was a passive economic and psychological curiosity. I wasn’t so much interested in how my kids would respond to shifted incentives, but more what they would do once they had cash in their hands. The result of my accidental experiment in a tiny sixth grade classroom in the middle of the middle of nowhere (not a typo) held deep illuminative power for me and hopefully anyone who reads this. My point, as you will see, is that inequality is the fault of the system, not the citizens fortunate or unfortunate enough to be a product of the system.

 

Naturally, I scaled the rewards. Students could buy things like ping-pong balls, pens, chocolate, or stickers for under $10. On the other hand, big-ticket items like basketball jerseys, dinner with me, or the opportunity to shave my head, could be priced as high as $250. For those, they would need the better part of an entire semester’s worth of savings. Of course, there were mid-range items like American post cards, foreign coins, and the privilege to choose a song before class, that were much more feasibly attainable. Note: I valued the “shave Mr. Luo’s head” prize at what I imagined was a comfortably-out-of-reach but not altogether absurd rate of $250. Next year, I’ll be doubling that figure.

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Students earned money through three predominant paths:

 

1). Behavior: students received $1 for a day with no warnings. As I teach them four times each week, I added another dollar if they went a full week without any warnings. So, one could earn $5 from behavior per week. A semester has 20 school weeks, which meant $100 was the ceiling for income related to behavior. I should say that, if a student received one warning, he effectively lost $2 for that week; $1 for the day and $1 for failing to go a full five days warning-free. If he repeated this same pattern every single week, he would lose out on $40.

 

2). Test scores: students received varying degrees of money based on actual score, improvement from previous test, and whether or not a score placed in the top 3 of the class. This domain didn’t only favor high-performing students, because improvement was weighted higher than raw score. Needless to say, though, it was highly unlikely that a student would improve each and every time he tested. For the top score in the class, when weighing factors of improvement and raw score, a student could earn around $20. There were five tests during the year, meaning the ceiling here was also around $100. It’s worth noting, that if you scored below 75%, unless you improved, you wouldn’t get anything. So, as far as class money was concerned, the tests were high stakes affairs. If you were a student who never passed a test and alternated between small score increases and decreases, you might earn $10 for the year. The gap was spacious.

 

3). Participation: students received money (usually in $1 increments) for correctly answering a specified question. Not every answer could yield a cash reward, but most could. This domain was the wildcard. Students could theoretically answer a question each class. Throw in some extra tough questions worth $5-$10, and a student could bank over $100 from actively participating.

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Upon reading the above information, you can probably guess what type of student stood to benefit in this system: well-behaved, high-scoring, active participators. If a student fit each of those descriptions he or (usually) she could be a veritable fat cat in the fiscal universe of class 6-2. For the (usually) boys or girls that could be described as disruptive, test-incapable, and—surprise, surprise—unable to actively, or at least, productively participate, they’d be getting by on a monthly piece of chocolate or the privilege to get a drink of water during class time.

 

In a nutshell, inequality was inherently vast.

 

Now, let’s get to the good stuff.

 

I’ll break down 6-2 like this: There are 5 or 6 students that would fit the bill for ultra-rich. They are all (save for one) highly motivated girls that too aren’t keen on giving their teachers headaches and take great pride in having the right answer, whether it be on a test or in the classroom. On the flip side, there are 7 or 8 that would qualify for the lower quartile. These are exclusively (save for one) boys that are at least two years behind their classmates. They generally have very little self-control and score below 50 on each test. As a result of all these characteristics, they like to make paper airplanes and flick pretty girls in the back of the head as an alternative to studying. The rest of the 21 students would fall into varying levels of the middle class. These students, as a rule, were neither exceptional nor struggled in all three categories. They may have been, for example, great test takers that acted out in class or shy hard workers that hesitated to raise their hand. There were certainly some upper middle classers, who were decidedly close to cracking the top echelon. On the lower end, students flirted with the disastrous prospect of falling into the bottom 7 or 8. If that were to happen, at this level of schooling, it would be a heartbreakingly cavernous hole to climb out of.

 

My system was predicated on a simple fact: students were going to buy things. I printed a rather sizable amount of money before the semester, and was ardently determined not to print more. I knew what I had should be enough.

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It took a few weeks for students to gauge how things were going to shake out. I doubt any of them actually calculated their earning probabilities, but if one was receiving $15 at the end of the week as opposed to $3, they could easily extrapolate—on intuition alone—where their purchasing power lay. During this time, students didn’t buy much of anything. They were trying to make sense this newfangled, slightly mysterious system. After the first student, a quiet, bespectacled boy named Andy came in to buy a ping-pong ball for $5—with no catch to be found—there was a spending rush. Students could hardly believe what they were seeing. I went to town to buy more chocolate.

 

 

 

Here’s where it starts to fall apart:

 

 

After students realized where they stood, they adjusted their buying patterns. This reaction was almost inherent. Sixth graders the world over have very little purchasing power in real life terms. They were learning on the fly. I don’t know exactly what happened next—if a pact was made or if it was just a collective savvy—but the girls at the top essentially altogether stopped coming to the shop in my room. I suppose one can only buy so many chocolate soccer balls and packs of gum, before one simply does not need any more of those things. They were saving their money for bigger and better things.

 

As the semester carried on, a very clear picture began to emerge. The students at the top were accumulating more and more and letting go of very little. The students at the bottom basically spent their money the day they got it. Even the mid-range items fell out of their reach. The wide range of students in the middle had diverse spending patterns. A few of them were saving for the big-ticket items, but generally they saved a little and spent the rest. It was, pretty much, in a word: wow.

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Because the system was such that the high level performers so vastly out-earned the lower end, every time the bottom quartile spent money, a massive percentage of it went into the folders of the top few. The same can be said for the middle portion of students, but the percentage was less severe. The problem was that the top-level kids weren’t spending their money. They were making the most and spending the least, proportionally. Another important fact to note: The prices were scaled so that students had to save for an entire semester to buy the big things. Therefore, when they did finally unload their riches onto our classroom society, it would be too late for anyone else to use them with any consequence. There was no carry over. At the end of the semester, the students were gone and the money was dead. So, holding money, at such severe degrees, only served to stall the whole system. But, of course, the students doing the saving had every right to do that.

 

Now, you may be able to see where I’m going and you’re probably asking this question: How do the spending and saving patterns of the top level kids have any effect on the lower level kids? First, in this system the two probably should not have been related. I should have planned for various scenarios and printed a ton of money. But I didn’t, and the supply couldn’t expand.

 

Toward the end of the semester, I noticed the stacks of money in my bank getting considerably shorter. It got to the point where I had to go print more just to be able to give out money for rewards. However, the process repeated. All the money spent by the lower and middle level students simply ended up at the top. And the top wasn’t putting nearly enough money back in. I could print money forever, and the same thing would happen. In an exasperated outburst I finally told my students, “Look, this only works if you spend your money. I can’t keep making more money. If you don’t spend it, I’m not going to give anymore out.” So, the kids in the middle and bottom spent what little they had while the ones at the top stopped in to buy a few small items and retained the lion’s share of their money. And, of course, the majority of what was spent went back into their hands. Then I stopped giving out money.

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At that point, everyone was a loser. The students at the bottom had nothing. The students in the middle were pretty much broke. The ones at the tippy-top had money, but couldn’t make any more of it, because there was no one else feeding the system. I lost too, of course, because my students had their incentive system taken away. The ultra-rich had a choice: they could either keep their money and see if I would somehow crack and print a bunch more or they could spend a bunch of it and cash in on the big ticket items. They all had enough money to buy at least one large prize. They chose the latter, thankfully. But, sadly, it was already June and there was little time left for further accumulation.

 

 

I was inspired to write about my classroom from a Politico article a friend shared with me called The Pitchforks are Coming by Nick Hanauer. The piece sought to debunk trickle-down economics by proving that rich people can’t make money if the middle and lower classes don’t have any money to spend. While I was reading it, a “holy shit” light bulb went off in my head. Hanauer was describing my classroom as though he’d been in it.

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There are obviously differences between a 36-student classroom economy and a large-scale global machine. There were no taxes, no inheritances, no creation of wealth, no mortgages, vital sustenance, or car leases. But, there are many fundamental similarities. The crucial caveat is that the supply was not infinite. In the end, one had to spend money for others to make money. The students that made the least money spent their money quickly, the students in the middle saved and spent (they were the model of the whole system), while the students at the top, though probably spending at a similar clip (in actual physical dollar terms) as the students at the bottom, proportionally sat on the greater sums. It’s easy to see how, given the above information, their accounts would continue to expand while the others contracted: The money always went back to them, because the system was so prodigiously in their favor.

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In the United States we are supposed to have systems in place to check this kind of thing: marginal tax brackets, estate taxes, minimum wages, unemployment benefits, the list goes on and on. But, those checks are failing miserably. Not only does money not trickle down (because a “trickle” shouldn’t be acceptable in the first place), it trickles up. The inequality gap only gets bigger and bigger over time. More and more people slip from the edge of the middle class into poverty. Less and less people make the forward jump. The reason, as I have said over and over, is simple: the system is too slanted. Jamie Dimon can make tens of millions of dollars a year while the guy that mops his floor may make $40,000. At least my system was designed to motivate students to behave, participate, and improve. Our system barely even does that anymore. But, that’s a discussion for another time.

 

The most telling thing about my classroom was that the students with the most money lost out when they hoarded everything. In a capitalist system, making money is explicitly tied to spending money. If no one is spending, no one is earning. Saving is crucial, yes, but only when necessary, and only when it’s done in anticipation of creating wealth down the road. There is a point where the inequality gap gets so large, that it is no longer possible for the economy to budge. Historically, the greatest instances of American economic growth are almost always in concert with the lowest levels of inequality. United we get richer, divided we stagnate.

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The fatal flaw of my system was that the students controlling the largest sums were not compelled to spend it, until the very end. The fatal flaw of our American system is that the checks in place to force the ultra-rich to bequeath some of their fortune to the masses are ineffective and riddled with convenient loopholes.

 

In the end, though, my top-performing sixth grade students came to the realization that not only was using their money good for everyone else, it was good for them. Maybe the best and brightest minds in America can come to that realization someday too.

 

 

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Where did our Love go? A Falling Out with Finance

I now have $-4.54 in my Chase bank account. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it looks like I have less money than I had in there before, considering banks usually frown upon opening checking accounts with negative money. It also appears that I am in debt to Chase for $4.54. Being in debt to Chase would imply that they gave me money at an earlier date to buy something that I wanted at that earlier date and now I should recompense them $4.54. The funny thing is though, I actually gave them money and now I owe them money. You see, Chase has this rule, somewhere deep in the finest of prints that says that if you have below X amount of money in your account and do not deposit every month (once every 30 days or so), they are entitled to five of your dollars. I live in Heqing, Yunnan, China, and as such use the only bank in town (well, my town doesn’t have a bank, but the only bank in the other town near me that has a bank). This bank is called “The Yunnan Rural Credit Union” and they use abacuses.

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I hadn’t taken a peek at my Chase bank account in months, which is probably exactly the kind of thing they’re going for with the $5 rule. In a fit of boredom, I signed in to my Chase online account, only to realize that what was probably a measly $45.46 at one point in the not so distant past, was now $0.46. That seemed a little odd. I checked my statement. All I saw were a series of $5.00 debits taking place on the same day of each month. Either I was dealing with a hacker of superior methodology and inferior greed, or I had been fine-printed out of $45. I was a bit perturbed, naturally, but I figured that was the end of it. They couldn’t very well take money that I didn’t have from me for not giving them money, right? But, they could. Chase overdrafted my account, voluntarily making themselves my creditor, entitled to a whole four dollars and fifty-four cents of my money. Think about it this way: they’ve taken my money and now they’re asking me to pay them back for it. That, dear readers, is thievery with some serious cojones. Theft to the most audacious degree. It’s meta-theft. I don’t even understand it, really. “Give me your lunch money! And now give me tomorrow’s lunch money to pay for the lunch money I just stole!”

Wait. What?

 

I was a finance major in college. I was and still am patently obsessed with the stock market, but I never truly respected the industry. Some people read books by Michael Lewis like The Big Short or Liar’s Poker or Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and say, “I want to be a Master of the Universe, too. Where’s the nearest tailor?” I think I used to be like that, but I’m starting to lose faith, big time. Not only that, I’m starting to not even want to be involved with banks at all, in any way shape or form, which is actually impossible.

Consider this:

Let’s say you want to get your hair cut. You pick a random barber. You ask him for a little snip and he shaves your whole head with great vigor. You’re incredulous. He tells you sorry, but he can’t fix a shaved head and anyways he could have sworn you said you were heading to the Aryan Brotherhood rally. His bad, he laughs. You reluctantly give him your money and walk out. You recommend your non-Nazi friends to stay away from this particular shop. You yourself, don’t go back. You protest with your dollars, or lack thereof. A couple months, maybe years, go by and you’ve ostensibly forgotten about the awful haircut he gave you. You go back to the shop. You ask him for a little snip and he shaves your whole head again and even enjoys it. Now you remember. You’re extremely angry. You tell him to shove his buzzer in all kinds of different orifices—his own and multiple members of his immediate family’s—and say you’re not paying. You go home and check out the reviews of this particularly barbershop and each review is the same. Someone went in expecting a little trim and wound up with their whole head shaved. You type a comparably apoplectic entry. You don’t go back.

Such a scenario would simply never happen. Why? The shop would be out of business in a week. There would be lawsuits filed for occupational negligence or hurt feelings that would immediately put the proprietor underwater financially.

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Now consider this:

The barbershop hires a bunch of hurly-burly security guards to force people to pay, even though they’ve been completely fleeced, metaphorically and not. They’ve also got a star PR team, that successfully muddles and downplays both what they do and their effectiveness at doing it. They’ve also hired lawyers specializing in hair salon litigation who are quickly able to convince a jury of not only the legality but the merit of shaving someone’s head completely bald when they don’t want to be bald. Additionally, they pay their low level employees hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to shave heads completely bald even when the customer doesn’t want to be bald, negating moral hazard with money.

Important to mention, every other barbershop does the same thing. So, if you want a new style, the “humpty-dumpty” is option 1, 2, and 3. Oh, and the barbershops have all the scissors, so you can’t DIY unless you’re willing to pull very hard.

The problem with the modern banking industry isn’t that they’re able to rip people off and in turn that they actually do rip people off. Believe it or not, almost anyone can and will take advantage of someone else given the opportunity. Kindergarteners rip each other off. It’s not that banks are greedy. It’s that we let them be. The thing people tend to forget about banks is that they need us so much more than we need them. After all, it’s our money that they use to lend to other people. They become our debtors (at 2% interest) before they can become someone else’s creditor (at 5% interest). Yes, they allegedly keep our money “safe,” but it’s not out of some sense of purpose and grand altruism. They keep our money safe because our money = their money. And, if they lose our money, they lose the ability to lend money and make more money. Feel me? And also, they don’t really keep our money safe anymore, because they like to use it to buy incredibly risky financial instruments so they can make even more money with our money. But it’s ok, if they do lose all of our money buying incredibly risky financial instruments, they can just ask the government to give them more of our money and act like it never happened.

Banking is absolutely necessary to society. No doubt about it. Without it, we couldn’t get loans, of course. If we couldn’t get loans we wouldn’t be able to create profit-generating things that add value to society, because there’d never be any money to actually fund the profit-generating things. Banks allow us to essentially loan money to people that we don’t even know in a more efficient way and allegedly free from the worry that you’ll have no recourse if those people don’t pay you back. Of course you’re not indirectly lending to those people via banks so that you can personally make the interest spread. It’s a different kind of loan. It’s a loan to society. It’s so that a guy down the street can build a house or Mark Zuckerberg can invent Facebook. You can’t have that stuff without creditors. And if you want a loan, micro or gigantic, banks are generally your go-to guy.

But. You can’t drive a car without car companies. You can’t eat food without farmers. You can’t get a haircut without barbershops. But, if your Ford sucks you can buy a Chevy. If you don’t like the oranges from California, you can eat the ones from Florida. If you don’t like getting your head shaved, you can go to a barbershop that doesn’t do that. But, generally, the banking industry is doing the same thing across the board and it’s pretty easy to see why they can get away with outrageous things like the $5 rule. When you drive, eat, or get your haircut it’s transparently obvious to see what you are getting in relation to your other options. Not so when you put your money in the Chase vault. Those other industries make money by pleasing their customer. If a bank wants to outdo its competitors, it has to screw the customer. Has to. Because, the bank’s fundamental asset is your money and once it’s in their hands they can do whatever they want with it. And what they want, I can assure you beyond a shadow of a doubt, is usually not what you want. And there is nothing you can do about it because they are prepared at every turn to tell you why you’re wrong and don’t get it. The guy at the counter might be nice sometimes, but the guy who’s allocating your capital probably isn’t.

When TARP was passed in 2008, I didn’t really get it. I was a freshman in college and a film studies major at that point. But, over the last couple years, I’ve read countless articles and books about the 2007 crisis and the banking industry in general. And it’s made me sick to my stomach; actually angry in the pit of my stomach. I should note that I understand that my small checking account and the instruments of exotic finance are not exactly presided over by the same forces. Commercial and investment banking are–at least theoretically–different animals. But, for the purposes of this discussion, that fact has no bearing on the effectiveness of either.

It’s not unpopular to criticize financial institutions. Have you ever seen someone with an, “I ❤ my reverse mortgage” tattoo? The only non-bankers that ever say anything nice about banks are people in commercials advertising banks. But nothing changes. By declaring banks as too big to fail, we’ve declared that we need them. No, not that we need banks (that is a fact), but that we need the ones we have. But, of course, they need us 7 billion times more.

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Has there ever, in the history of the world, been an industry that has screwed its customers so hard and for so long without being told to simply “Stop It!”? OK, maybe some factions of organized religion. But, still. If the banking industry were literally screwing its customers, it would be kind of like this: A guy with incredible stamina who takes hours to finish, gains great, almost sadistic pleasure from the experience, and leaves his partner completely unsatisfied and in pain. But, for some reason, the partner keeps coming back voluntarily and even paying for the experience. He or she may complain to her friends and their friends will in turn complain to them about a similar experience with a similarly terrible lover, but they will always come back.

Yunnan Rural Credit Union doesn’t do this to me. They might use abacuses and have a 70-year-old security guard who wears jorts, but they’re nice enough.

Somewhere along the line the American financial industry morphed into a cataclysm of suit-and-tie armies with profit on their mind and in their heart. As it goes, banks have the money, so banks make the rules about the money. But, again, they don’t have the money. You have the money and I have the money. We just give it to them. Think about the places you voluntarily give money to without receiving much in return: your only child, FEMA, non-profit organizations, and Bank of America. Bank of America may actually appreciate your money less than your hormoned-up 15 year old. The interesting thing is, on paper you would imagine banks to have one of the highest social values of any industry. Banks make it possible for us to give our money to someone with the resources to vet potential projects and ideas and allocate society’s money effectively. If they want to make some money on the interest spread, they absolutely should, because they’re theoretically providing an undeniably vital service.

But, it’s when Chase appropriates $5.00 from my account every month for not giving them more money, or Citi stuffs its balance sheet with putrid CDOs masquerading as investment grade mortgage bonds, or when Howie Hubler loses $9 billion for JP Morgan(read: The shareholders of JP Morgan) and still gets and feels entitled to his $25 million a year salary, or when the former CEO of Goldman Sachs is the Secretary of the Treasury for The United States of America and makes all of that stuff possible, that you have to stop and think about what’s really going on. They’ve shaved our heads, we’re looking in the mirror, and they’re telling us that no one can do it better. And we believe them.

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“Too big to fail” is a green light to keep on screwing. It’s like the crappy lover. Until someone actually says, “Wait a second, I should be able to get this somewhere else for better and cheaper,” they’ll keep being dissatisfied. Maybe they’ll even start doing it themselves. Chase, I hope the $4.54 that I owe you will go to funding some NGO that wants to help kids in Swaziland learn about AIDS prevention, but I’m not actually stupid. You only think I am.

Lamentations from Beijing Standard Time

“Deéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeéeé,”

 

Or is it,

 

“Deèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeèeè.”

 

The bell.

 

Someone’s got it out for me. You know when you’re part of a 10 car pileup and your Smart Car gets totaled and crushed to pieces and 17 small animals are killed in the process and you walk out with just an untied shoelace? Know what I’m saying? And you call your grandma and she says, “Someone up there’s looking out for you.” Whatever that is, I’m on the other side of the coin, big time. I’m the small animal. The gods are on my case.

 

I’m sitting in the teacher’s office, sprawled out over a couch. My foot is on the coffee table. I attempt to furtively remove it every time another teacher walks by. “What No. Oh, come on, I just like to hover my foot above the table like this. It’s just this thing I do.” I’m watching what’s supposed to be (and later turned out to be anything but) the greatest NBA finals of this generation: The Heat-Spurs rematch of the infamous “28.2” game when the Spurs all but had the championship rings on their fingers before LeBron James and Ray Allen went next level superhuman and wound up stealing the series in epically dramatic fashion. The Spurs were back for revenge, which, again, they got, But, I didn’t know this at the time.

 

I love basketball more than almost anything else. Anything I love more, you can surely count on one hand, and they’re all immediate family members. Luckily, I only have three people in my immediate family; otherwise I’d have to start making cuts. With that in mind, these NBA finals, even though my putrid New York Knicks are nowhere to be found, are a godsend to me. When the Spurs officially bounced the Oklahoma City Thunder and I knew we’d get a rematch of last year’s finals, I got that feeling in my stomach that you get right before your first kiss. I think I may have even been—no, definitely was—sexually aroused. Then I realized something that I’d slowly begun to forget.

I live in China; and, as if that wasn’t enough, I have a job. I immediately rushed to my computer and checked the schedule. Not a single game would be on Friday or Saturday night (Saturday and Sunday morning in Beijing Standard Time). I wouldn’t be able to watch one full game of the 2014 NBA finals, the greatest finals of all time, the most pertinent reason to live as far as I’m concerned. If I were a god-fearing man, I’d consider it a message. I began to think of the possibilities: I could play sick, naturally. I could fabricate a top-secret business meeting with Beijing officials and camp out in a hotel for two weeks. I could switch all of my classes to the afternoon. I could lock myself in the teachers’ lounge, where the only TV—and all the baijiu—on campus is, and threaten to destroy the each bottle of baijiu if anyone touched the doorknob. I could just quit. But if I quit, I’d be unemployed during and after the NBA finals. If I locked myself in a room and cracked open 30 bottles of baijiu, I’d almost surely inadvertently off myself on account of the fumes. It was clear: I had no choice.

 

I’m from the Eastern Standard time zone. I live in the Beijing Standard time zone. China is the third largest country in the world, by area, but stubbornly maintains a single time system from Beijing to Lhasa. Strange, irritating, and surprising, considering they can effortlessly switch between the Lunar and Gregorian calendars mid-sentence. In any event, the American East Coast is 12 hours behind the Chinese East Coast (and south, north, and west for that matter). So, of course, a basketball game played at 9 pm on Wednesday night in Miami would air at 9am Thursday morning in Sanzhuang. This conundrum, I’ve found, is the single worst part of living in a different time zone. If you want to talk to your dad or grandma or significant other, you can just tell them what time. “Eight am for you, eight pm for me? No? Let’s push it back an hour. Fine.” Unfortunately, when the NBA schedules the finals, it doesn’t take teachers in the middle of Southwestern China into account. And, unlike the conversation with mom and dad, you can’t very well call up LeBron and see if he wouldn’t mind pushing the tip-off up to 8 in the morning, Eastern Standard.

 

“You know what LeBron, I’d even be willing to compromise for 7 am, if you can swing it.”

 

That probably wouldn’t work either. The latest class I teach in the mornings starts at 10:15. This meant, the most I’d be able to see of any single game (if tip-off was at 8:15 and I had to be in class at 10:15—10:16 if I stretched it—would be three quarters. I’d never once be able to see the final buzzer. In the end, I could catch 15-minute stretches between back-to-back classes and a quarter or two during longer breaks. I was beholden to the bell. It really was agony. Death by baijiu fumes began to sound better and better each day.

 

For example: During game one, I had to teach a fourth period art class to a bunch of 11 year olds. I hate art class, especially with 11 year olds. It’s rowdy and unpredictable and someone usually cries (and it’s not always me). I was summoned by the rancorous 10:15 bell at the end of the third quarter with the score Heat-78, Spurs-74. When class ended, the game was over. The Spurs had won by 15 points! 110-95. LeBron James had cramped up and couldn’t stay on the court and I was yelling at Li HuaLin to keep his hands of off Lin LiHua, and Li HuaLin didn’t want to do that.

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The games ended, I was able to check the scores, and the Spurs took the championship in 5 games, giving LeBron and friends a very public pro-basketball version of a wedgie in the process. It’s over now, and I still have my job and my dignity.

 

When you live in a different country, you make a lot of sacrifices. Some big (missing the NBA finals), some small (not seeing friends and family for years at a time). Being an ex-pat is weird, because you’ll never be able to make that full break. Even if you hate your country, want to burn your passport, and violently take flash pictures of the Declaration of Independence until it crumbles to shreds, you might like Butterfingers or you might like that beeping sound the door makes when you walk into a CVS or you might like the NBA. If you hate everything about your country, then you’re just a born hater, and there’s no hope for you anywhere else either. Nostalgia is inescapable.

 

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Like I said, I’d kind of begun to forget that I was living in China. I don’t mean China, per se, I just mean living in a place that I’m not from. I’ve been here long enough now that cravings and desires for things back home have started to dissipate as it becomes painfully obvious that there are no meatball subs, music festivals, or Cheesy Gordita Crunches in my immediate future. But, LeBron’s cramp game brought me back online. A time zone is a theoretical expression of distance, and it expressed itself quite vividly while I was hovering my feet above the table, hoping for the bell not to ring. I knew, that were I back in the US, not only would I not be in class, but I’d be at a bar, getting a little bit sauced, and going insane with hundreds of other people when Patty Mills ripped off three straight threes in a row. Or even sitting in the living room with just my dad, eating a fat piece of ribeye and talking about the beautiful simplicity of Tim Duncan’s post moves.

 

Maybe I realized that it wasn’t necessarily the finals that bothered me, but what the finals represented. Yes, I was still completely miffed not to be able to watch the games themselves. But, in any event, I would have been watching them at 8 in the morning, on a shitty TV, with volume too low to hear and in a language that I still can’t confidently or enjoyably watch TV in, by myself, and being eaten alive by flies. And sober.

 

I remember when I was studying abroad in Shanghai. UCONN was in the NCAA finals against Butler. I went to a bar at 7:30 am and drank Bloodies and cheered with fifty other people who were at least interested in the game. It was good. It was ok. But, even then, it wasn’t the same. I could give countless similar instances. Yankees playoff games, Jets playoff games, the UCONN championship that happened just a few months ago. And these are just sports. You miss graduations and weddings and all kind of things. Things that, even if you were running away from something back home—I’m not—you still don’t want to run away from.

 

It’s impossible to recreate somewhere somewhere else. And that’s not the point anyway. You’ve got to appreciate both places for what they are. The emotion of “missing” is just a reminder that you have affection for something, and you may not have known it before. When I go back to the US, I am sure that I will miss things about China. I’m sure, on top of those, there are even more things that I don’t even know I’ll miss until I can’t walk down the street and see them or eat them. And that’s a beautiful thing. We live in a world where you can’t have all the things you love and like anytime, anywhere, at least for now. That makes it a lot easier to appreciate them. Next time I get to see a full NBA finals, in a bar, or even at the arena, with thousands of other people, I’ll be looking back to that god awful 4th grade art class and really remembering what it means to love something.

 

But, goddamn, I cannot believe I didn’t get to see the Cramp Game.

Giving Zach a Chance

              Zach is 12. Twelve is a rather young age to decide who is “dumb” and who isn’t. Zach, unfortunately, it has been decided, is “dumb.” He’s never been in love, he’s never put a car into drive, he’s never sat at the adults’ table. But, it’s been decided that he’s “dumb.” Strangely, the kids tabbed as “dumb” are given the least attention. This is a pretty precarious situation for Zach, who still has at least 4 years of school left. He’s placed at the back of the class with other students like him. If he can’t keep his hands to himself or shut his mouth, he’s encouraged to read quietly or put his head down instead of participating. He complies, because, hell, what 6th grader wouldn’t agree to that deal?

         Little does Zach know that every second he spends with his head on his desk is a second of education he will never get back. There’s no layaway for grammar points. He can’t comprehend how today’s bopping his deskmate on the head during a lesson about quadrilateral shapes is going to affect his disposable income 15 years from now. It’s impossible for him to connect the dots between an assignment on the future tense and the actual future. And, he shouldn’t. That’s not Zach’s job. That’s my job. Weeding out the “cans” from the “can’ts” is the way education is structured. Once you’ve been marked, you’re either in for an adolescence of an uphill battle or a self-fulfilling cruise toward higher education. Whether Zach’s in Sanzhaung, Sao Paulo, or Sydney, that’s the way it is. But it’s a little different in Sanzhuang.

         I teach a 6th grade class of 36 students. Based on recent history, about half of them will go to high school. Of that 18, maybe three to five will go to college. Forget The Princeton Review. I’m talking about college. Period. Eleven percent odds to go to college at all. You’ve got to be extraordinary just to do something that, if you didn’t do in most parts of the US, you’d get a lot of eyebrow raises. Factor in that 100% of students’ parents didn’t go to college. Factor in that almost all of their teachers didn’t either. Factor in that college, even if it’s totally free, still incurs a massive opportunity cost for students in rural Yunnan.

           Take this into consideration and Zach’s unjust predicament begins to make sense. At some point as a teacher, it seems, you’ve got to put your chips on the table. If you’re teaching forty students, among who four have a realistic shot at higher education and only half can make it to freshman year of high school, you’ve got to give them that chance. There simply aren’t enough hours in the school day to get Zach up to speed in long division, let alone times tables. He had his chance. He missed it. It’s over. Put your head on your desk and bask in the blissful ignorance of a disappearing education.

           Zach’s not going to college. Zach’s not going to high school. But, that does not preclude Zach from receiving a meaningful education on his terms. It’s not the system that’s screwing Zach over; it’s the system’s resources. Too many students, not enough teachers, not enough support, not enough time.

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        I’m not a great teacher, especially in this exam-intensive system. I’ll never be as good as a local English teacher who’s been through the process, knows the ins and outs, and can perceive with almost Nostradamus like efficiency, what is and isn’t going to be on the county-wide final exams. What I, and other Teach for China fellows can provide, however, is a new perspective.

        I don’t let Zach read or sleep in my class. At the very least, he has to call back vocabulary words like everyone else. He is almost illiterate in Chinese, so in English class I just tell him to do his best, but don’t over scrutinize his work. The other day I was giving a review lesson about superlatives. Taller! Older! Stronger! Bigger! On a scale of excitement, the lecture was somewhere between a James Lipton monologue and Barry Manilow’s Classic Christmas. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I actually felt bad for my students. I assigned them to copy the vocab words, which were all adjectives with –er tacked onto the end, and began to walk around the room. I looked over at Zach in the back left corner, who was uncharacteristically industrious. As I walked toward him, he quickly shoved something in his desk and looked up straight ahead.

“What is it Zach? If I was watching this class I’d be bored too.”
“Nothing…” A cheeky grin emerges.
“Fair enough.”

When the bell rang Zach approached me.

“Mr. Loeb, you can’t tell Mrs. Wang,” (His homeroom teacher)
“I wasn’t going to.”
“After all, it’s your fault.”
“Well yeah, I know, but not every class can be fun. I’ve told you that.”
“No! I was working on this.”

       He shows me an absurdly intricate drawing of a futuristic looking city. Written on the bottom in Chinese, “My Ideal Hometown.”

“I see. It’s, umm, really good, Zach, wow. Don’t worry about it. You’re free to go.”

           This year Sanzhuang’s theme for the CORE (Community Outreach Rediscovery and Enlightenment) project is “My Ideal Hometown.” Myself and my two co-fellows 张晓杰 and 赵娅楠 asked students to get into groups of five with others from their village. The groups would compete for an educational field trip to Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, at the end of the school year. Zach is from a tiny mountain village called Dongpo. Because his academic success has been low, he was apparently not a desirable team member. Because Dongpo is the smallest village of all the feeder towns for Sanzhuang, the other students said they had to take Zach on their team, otherwise they would only have four members.

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             Zach didn’t let them down. It appeared that all his restlessness and nervous energy in the classroom was being channeled toward the project. Whereas previously getting him to write his own name in English proved an almost impossible task (his favorite version is ScAh), now he was drawing elaborate diagrams of urban plans, and doing so way beyond the expectations of the project. When half of the remaining 27 teams were eliminated after the first two rounds, tiny Dongpo was still in contention for the trip to Kunming. Zach would come up to me after almost every class asking what the score of the competition was, even though I’m sure he knew each team’s point total by heart. I’d have to tell him, “Zach, we just got back from a holiday. The score hasn’t change in a week.”

“Oh, right,” He’d say.

           Last weekend we tallied the scores. Zach didn’t win. Dongpo placed sixth out of an original group of 30, a rather impressive showing considering they were competing against teams from towns 5 times their size. The winning team was made up of five incredibly motivated girls who, though it’s still early on in the game, look to be very much on track to go to high school, college, and beyond. But Zach held his own. He may score 70 points lower than them in the classroom, but his team finished a mere five spots below them on the CORE project. And you know what? He was bummed out. He asked me what set the other team apart and why his team didn’t win. Dongpo’s model was great, I said, but the winning team’s written work was exemplary. Every week Zach receives papers full of red X’s, 30% test scores, and angry looks from teachers. At this point, he’s learned to shrug it off. But not this time.

            Seeing Zach give his absolute all—and then some—got me thinking. Elementary school isn’t about prepping kids for high school and college. At least, it shouldn’t be. It’s about giving kids the chance to discover a passion. Some kids like math, some kids don’t like math but do it because they know they have to. Some kids hate it, can’t do it, and will never change their mind. That doesn’t mean they can’t be passionate about something. That doesn’t mean they’ve missed their shot at a productive obsession. Newton liked gravity, Galileo liked stars, and Zach from Dongpo likes drawing intricate constructions of his ideal hometown. Newton wouldn’t have known how much he loveeeed gravity if an apple didn’t bonk him on the cranium. Zach wouldn’t have known how much he loves drawing if he wasn’t given the opportunity through the CORE project. I mean and believe that with complete conviction. Zach’s not even close to “dumb,” whatever that means, his passions have just been on the shelf.

            The scale will never be tipped in Zach’s favor. The time, money, and political influence needed to give kids like him a high-level of education just isn’t here. But, if we have the opportunity to move the scales ever so slightly, we should give it our best shot. The students deserve it. Zach deserves it.

        I’m reaching out to everyone and anyone who reads this blog to please help me and my co-fellows reach our fundraising goal so we can make CORE possible this year and beyond. Consider the link below. Everything helps: Donating, sharing, supporting, even just knowing.

Thank you.

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Why am I writing this??

Breathe out… I’ve been in Sanzhuang for almost a full school year now. Needless to say, 2013-2014 has been unlike any of my previous 18 school years. For one, this year was spent on the “other side of the desk,” as teachers often ominously say. But, perhaps even more importantly than that, I’ve spent it in a different language, a different country, and a completely different system. Let’s be real. The teaching part isn’t the most intriguing angle of this escapade. Teaching is different, but kind of the same wherever you are. Plus, the idiosyncrasies between a classroom in Heqing and one in Connecticut aren’t, I can promise you, probably very fascinating to anyone outside of the teaching profession. That’s why, from the get go, I didn’t want to make this blog about teaching.

Living, though. That is something that, generally speaking, all human beings have to do from time to time. That’s where the good stuff’s at. If you’ve never written a lesson plan or confiscated a love note, you’re probably not super piqued by how that stuff goes down in a Chinese context. But, everybody eats, everybody relaxes, and everybody… poops. Writing worth reading, I’ve found, is relatable writing with a twist. Only linguists with a Scandinavian persuasion want to read Practical Norwegian Grammar by Rolf Strandskogen. That said, one can only read the local news so many times before they’ve heard enough about the new zoning restrictions in Sleepy Hollow Park. Relatable, but enlightening, is how it should be. I’m not a writer. I’m a finance major who has a skewed view about how interested WordPress readers are in my bowel movements. If you’ve never read any of my previous posts, I recognize that that last line might be a bit disagreeable. I apologize.

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I chose to write because I wanted to give people a small window into China. But not China. Not what you see on the front page of the New York Times or on The Daily Show or on Fox Five, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m not out to write the news. I’m trying to humanize China, specifically Yunnan, in a way that abstract newspaper features about impenetrable smog can’t do. China is so foreign, yet so inextricably important to everyone across the world. If you disagree, check the tag on any piece of clothing you’ve got on. Chances are…

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I’m not trying to do hard-hitting investigative exposés. I’m just trying to make the handful of people who read this thing laugh, learn, and most importantly, think about China. Because like or not, you’re going to have to. And when you think about China, I hope, instead of just smog and 1989 and Nikes—because those things are important too—you think about me suppressing my vomit after going bottoms up on a shot of baijiu. And think about the people sitting around the table with me, drinking that baijiu, who couldn’t give a shit about the smog in Beijing, because the only time they don’t see blue sky is during the rainy season. And think about the woman who collects my 1 Yuan toilet fee. Currencies are the last type of “floating object” she’s got on her mind. And think about the students. No, really think about them, because one day they might be making your Nikes or buying your real estate or shaking your hand at a ribbon-cutting ceremony or, if we really mess it up, invading your shores. Frankly, one day your kids might be making their Nikes. Gasp!

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It’s painfully obvious to say that China, or anywhere on the earth is at its core about people and relationships. But, it’s painfully easy to forget that fact when we see the same things over and over again on the news. Foreign visions about any place are molded by information, not experience. Not everyone can drop everything and move to the other side of the world, so information is the next best thing. As such, our views on China and vice-versa have literally been created by secondhand accounts. Entire policies, attitudes, and cold-hard convictions have been forged by indirect contact. That is CRAZY. I’m not the news, but I’m something. My intention in the next year is to keep reminding people that there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye. I should rephrase that. There’s a lot less going on here than meets the eye. It’s not complicated. It’s just life. If you want to think about China in a geopolitical sense, it’s easy, if not expected. It’s pretty much the only option we’re given. But, do your best to see it in a human sense and future generations will thank you, I promise.

Friday Night

I’m brought back to a simple fact time and again. All the world over, everyone does the same things. We eat, we drink, we relax, we go to the bathroom. We have to do these things. It’s part of the human experience. It’s part of being alive. Whether we’re in China, Brazil, Iowa, Mozambique, we’ve got to do them. We just do them a little differently.

 

            “Let’s go, let’s go Mr. Luo. Time to eat.”

 

            I’m shooting hoops, when Mrs. Wang, a Sanzhuang local teacher, calls me to go to dinner.

 

            “Can I go like this?” I’m wearing a tank top and shorts.

            “Mmm… yes.” Unconvincing.

            “Give me two minutes.”       

            “I’ll be at the gate.”

 

            I run back to my room and throw on a black polo. I don’t change my shorts, because I play by my own rules.

 

            Mrs. Wang and I hop into the cab of a Yunnan style pickup. Half the size, slower, and louder than your average Ford F-150. We drive for a few minutes and come to an abrupt stop at a dusty side road. Our driver hangs a sharp left and winds us up the path. He takes another left and we arrive at a giant compound. At initial glance it feels a lot like Carcosa, from True Detective: A massive complex in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by low-lying shrubbery and dust. We hop out of the pickup. There’s a pen of irritable goats to my right. A bunch of guys I recognize are playing Mahjong at a table to my left.

 

            The Yunnanese Tony Soprano incarnate, calls to me: “Hitler, come on, let’s have a drink.”

 

            My Chinese name, 泰勒, Taile, happens to share the same final character as 希特勒, Hitler. As such, the Yunnanese Tony Soprano relentlessly calls me ‘Hitler.’ To explain to him why that is in no way chill, would be a waste of my time and effort, so I play along. I tell him I’ll be right back. I want to scope out this new place. I look into the first room; a bunch of people playing Mahjong. The second room; a few kids watching TV. I walk down a dirt path, take a left, and wind up in the kitchen. More people drinking and playing Mahjong. I walk back toward the front, where Tony and the regulars have quit their game.

 

            “Hitler, come on! Let’s do one.” Tony hands me the red cap to a bottle of baijiu. It’s full. I slurp it down. We sit. There are about 6 or 7 guys at the table. Among them are my principal, Mr. Yang, the Yunnanese Tony Soprano, the current and former Sanzhuang security guards, the local doctor, and one other guy that’s always there, but as far as I’m concerned has no name. We’re sitting outside, in the courtyard. I’m the youngest at the table by a solid ten years. I’m also the only one without a kid or a wife.

 

            Not a minute goes by before the dishes arrive. On the menu this evening:

 

            Onions, sliced thin, soaked in lime and pepper flakes. It tastes like ceviche. It tastes like something you’d put on a taco. It’s a rare flavor out here, and is beyond pleasantly surprising.

 

            Thin, flaky, giant sugary cheese chips laid on top of each other. Cheese is hard to come by in China, but these are the real deal.

 

            Jumbo beans doused in salty oil.

 

            Liangfen, grass jelly served cold, dipped in heavy soy sauce for optimal enjoyment.

 

            Fish. Tiny whole fish, maybe 4 inches long drenched in garlicky soy sauce. I never eat these because I’m lazy. The effort required to extract meat from between the myriad bones is too much for me to handle. I also don’t like eating things that still have eyes.

 

            Finally, the piece de resistance. Between the dishes, at the center of the table, is a bowl of pork soup. Big, fat bones and meat that gracefully slides off of them.

 

            Rice. Of course.

 

            It bears repeating. Almost all of this food is from the backyard. No preservatives, no GMOs, no nothing. It’s kind of like Whole Foods, except without a stock ticker.

 

            For a few minutes, no one speaks. We devour. Then, the former security guard calls us to attention.

 

            “Drink. Drink to good fortune.”

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            Everyone’s got a paper cup. He pours each of us a half glass of baiju. Everyone clinks and takes a sip. That familiar burn. All the way down to the pit of my stomach. It tastes like Everclear, but with half the effectiveness.

 

            The current security guard’s brother is sitting across from me. He’s wearing a camouflage shirt that says “U.S. Army” above the pocket. He looks at me.

 

            “Hey, in America can the government decide what age you can get married?”

            “I believe it’s 16 with parental consent, 18 without.”

            “Not bad. You know, it’s 22 for men in China. Twenty for women.” (I do not know if this is true).

            “That late, huh?”

            “Yes. Some colleges specifically forbid their students from getting married, as well.”

            “I guess a wife and kids could be a pretty big nuisance to studying, eh?”

            “You said it.”

 

            The former security guard puts his arm around the guy next to him and pinches his cheek.

 

            “In America, the two of us, heh, we could get married. I saw that on the news.”

            “You said it.”

            “But, you see. He’s too much trouble. It wouldn’t be a healthy marriage. He’s a drunk, you know. I’d have to throw him out.”

            “Yeah well, if you married him, you’ve got to deal with the consequences.”

            “DRINK!”

 

            Another round of shots. What happens if you erode the walls of your esophagus? Fuck it, I’ll worry about that when the time comes.

 

            It’s become clear to me that we like to view cultures and countries in the light of difference. “In America, you can get married at 18?” “In America, two dudes can get married?” “In China, do you really shit in a hole?” I play into that too. Everything I write on here is about how different my Chinese life is from my American life.

 

            It makes sense. Differences are much more intriguing than similarities, right? If everyone looked the same, ate the same food, shit in the same type of bathroom, life would be unbearably boring. But, really, strip away one or two layers of difference, and we’re all doing the same stuff.

 

            For the last five years of my life, I had a Friday ritual. I went to The Boot at 6:00 pm, sat outside with my friends, drank hard liquor, and told ridiculous stories. Now, on Friday night, I sit outside with my friends, drink hard liquor, and tell ridiculous stories. My friends are a little older, the liquor is a little harder, and the stories are told in a different language. The scene, though, is thoroughly similar.

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            That’s what culture is, really; slight tweaks of the human experience grounded in geography. We drink baijiu. We drink Pinot Grigio. We still drink. We execute a criminal by stoning. We execute a criminal by lethal injection. We still execute a criminal. We say say ‘Wo ai ni.’ We say ‘I love you.’ We still have affection. We live there. We live here. We still live. We just live a little bit differently.